The Incredible Hulk: An Analysis
Dir. Louis Leterrier
Writ. Zak Penn
Note: Structurally, Bruce Banner and Hulk are two separate characters. I will be treating them as such in this analysis.
The Incredible Hulk is something of a black sheep in the MCU thanks to both its strange release date (barely a month after Iron Man), lukewarm critical reception, and prolonged falling out between Marvel and Edward Norton that preceded Mark Ruffalo’s eventual casting in The Avengers. Despite its reputation, though, The Incredible Hulk still stands as one of the best entries in the MCU: featuring crisp and distinctive cinematography that doesn’t feel like anything Marvel would go on to do in subsequent years, as well as an unusually strong use of three-act structure, The Incredible Hulk is a curious film that’s more than worth revisiting.
The movie opens with a shocking bit of structural subversion, especially for a Phase 1 entry in the MCU—an entire origin story told in opening-credits flashback. Let’s look at this sequence in detail. We open with images of X-rays, which indicate an emphasis on science, and blood, a crucial substance to the arc of the film. Bruce Banner is seated in a bulky machine, a green target painted on his forehead, while Betty Ross watches nervously; they are performing some sort of experiment on Banner, and there is the potential for it to go wrong and hurt him. That much is clear.
A brief medium shot from Banner’s POV cuts to a close-up of Betty in the split second before the machine moves in front of his eyes: he is thinking of her, cares about her, in this moment of high intensity, and then she vanishes from his sight. A red light indicates danger, Banner’s eyes become green, and we get one last quick cut to Betty before he transforms into Hulk. This sequence of shots emphasizes how important Betty is to Bruce and how inextricably tied up she is in the radical events which are about to happen. Our first glimpse of Hulk comes from behind, highlighting his mythic nature and the mystery of the transformation.
The screen distorts around the edges to indicate that we are now in Hulk’s POV, blinded by emotion, looking down on Betty—a wide shot diminishes her size within the frame, indicating how powerless she is in comparison to Hulk. We see William Ross, surprised at the incredible (eh?) sight before his eyes, before quickly cutting back to Betty, who is now lying motionless amongst the wreckage on the floor. Hulk’s shadow slides over her, he reaches out a hand…and a gun fires. While we are in Hulk’s POV, the camera cuts to extreme close-ups whenever his attention focuses on something that is angering him (in this case, the gun); he knocks Ross aside (relatively gently, perhaps because he is aware of his connection to Betty) before destroying the soldier firing the gun. Ross holds up a bloody hand to ward off Hulk, and the camera pulls back to indicate that the monster is moving away.
Betty is now in a hospital bed; the screen distortion has vanished, and the camera moves steadily towards her. These subtle changes are an extraordinary efficient way to put us back in Banner’s POV without dialogue or any other indication. Bruce reaches out a hand to touch Betty, and for a brief moment we slip into yet another flashback (indicated by the warmer color palette, which gives off an aura of happiness and sentimentality), one in which Betty gently nuzzles Bruce’s outstretched hand. We see Ross confronting Banner at Betty’s bedside. His arm is in a sling, but he towers over Banner and is visibly angry. It is easy to surmise that Ross has a connection to Betty and is upset with Bruce for putting her in the hospital. Bruce’s face is rightfully fearful; he blames his himself as much as Ross for what happened to Betty, and Ross witnessed his flirtation with uncontrollable power. Betty wakes just in time to see Ross driving Banner from the hospital.
We cut to newspaper headlines: “EXPLOSION,” “MYSTERIOUS INCIDENT.” “CULVER UNIVERSITY.” “GREEN MONSTER.” The public, then, is at least peripherally aware of Hulk. Images of destruction flash across the screen. Armed soldiers, searching. “LABORATORY EQUIPMENT DISCOVERED ON SITE.” Bruce is using his scientific knowledge to…what? Learn more about what happened? Trigger another transformation? At this point, we don’t know. “SUBJECT EVADED CAPTURE.” The camera zooms in on Ross, frustrated, standing against a backdrop of world maps. The search for Bruce is geographically vast and, thus far, fruitless. We see a finger lowering a blind as two soldiers approach—presumably Bruce, who has become paranoid and is always on the lookout.
Then, an interesting bit of text on Ross’ screen: “REQUISITION REQUEST: US ARMY: STARK INDUSTRIES. APPROVED.” This is accompanied by blueprints of the sonic emitters that Ross will attempt to use to capture Hulk during the action sequence midway through the movie, which is a lovely bit of foreshadowing that easily could have been overplayed—as it is, the images go by so fast that they are difficult not to miss. A few final messages move us into the movie proper: Banner attempted to contact Betty in 2006, but he was intercepted. He hasn’t been seen for five months. Ross has lost the trail. And then we cut to a shot of a metronome, ticking steadily back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.
This entire flashback is a beautiful sequence of storytelling. We’re barely three minutes into the movie (including the opening logos, so actually closer to about 2:30), and we’ve already covered Bruce’s entire backstory: his romance and guilt-ridden relationship with Betty, Ross’ relentless pursuit, and the fast-paced cat-and-mouse chase that will define much of the movie. We know where all the major characters stand emotionally with one another, we know what Bruce wants, and we know what’s at stake. That’s an incredible (last time, I promise) amount of ground to cover in less than three minutes, and Leterrier pulls it off. It’s a bold move that allows The Incredible Hulk to cut right to the heart of the conflict from minute one, increasing the pace and investing us intellectually, if not emotionally, from the opening frames of the film.
So what gives? Why does The Incredible Hulk get away with such condensed storytelling when Iron Man, Thor and Captain America all spend two hours covering the same distance? A couple reasons. 1. Even though it is not part of the MCU, Ang Lee’s Hulk was released was only five years prior to The Incredible Hulk. It is unlikely that Marvel wanted to retread that ground. 2. Of the four Phase 1 heroes to be granted solo films, Hulk’s origin story was probably the most well-known in the public consciousness. The average moviegoer in 2008 was not familiar with the inception of Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America. If any of the core Avengers were going to have their story told in abbreviated flashback, it was going to be Hulk; still, Marvel could benefit from using this tactic more often—audiences are smart, and they can pick up information along the way. There’s no reason to tell an origin story if it is not interesting enough to warrant two hours of screentime. (Marvel will take steps towards correcting this during Phase 3, but they have a habit of sacrificing clarity and motivation for the sake of brevity. See: the appearances of Black Panther and Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War.)
Bruce stops the metronome. We hear his heartbeat pounding faintly in the silence. DAYS WITHOUT INCIDENT, a bit of on-screen text reads, 158. It’s obvious from the context of the character that an “incident” is a transformation into Hulk, and the formality of the language (as well as its negative connotation) tells us that such an event is extraordinarily destructive to the stability of Banner’s life. Bruce sets the metronome down with a sigh, and we realize what is happening: we see his posture, cross-legged and barefoot on the floor, his frustration with the metronome, his heartbeat echoing…put it all together, and it is not hard to intuit that he is using some sort of meditative technique to match his heartbeat to the timing of the metronome. But he is failing. Bruce’s immediate goal, then, is to master that timing, and we thus have the most essential element of storytelling—a motivated protagonist. The metronome is a sly structural device that communicates Banner’s push towards self-control and the ticking clock that counts down towards his inevitable discovery by Ross.
A sweeping overhead shot of establishes Brazil as our setting (which I find enormously refreshing; it doesn’t feel like any other location that shows up in the MCU). Bruce picks up his English-Portuguese dictionary and channel surfs to a children's show, indicating that he has been on the move and is still learning the local language. He identifies the word “hungry” and says it aloud, to which his dog whines. This beat establishes his unfamiliarity with the language and sets up a fun joke which we will get to in a few minutes, which is a deft bit of multi-purpose writing that makes for rich and efficient storytelling.
We see Banner training, working on his breathing techniques. The camera zooms in on his face when the trainer describes control of the body as “the best way to control your anger,” emphasizing the importance of this bit of wisdom to Bruce. The trainer slaps our protagonist and his heartrate monitor begins beeping rapidly, which clearly establishes cause and effect: Bruce gets angry, heartrate goes up…we can derive the rest from there. Since Banner obviously does not want to be Hulk, we are instantly clued in to the beeping of the heartrate monitor as an indicator of escalating stakes and tension. Leterrier positions the camera behind Bruce so we can see the shock on his face when he is slapped; then we get our first shot of the heartrate monitor and we know that Banner is safe, at least, up to 146 BPM.
Let’s go back to that earlier point, though: Bruce does not want to be Hulk. This is the quality that makes him interesting in a way that the other major heroes are not; whereas they are constantly scrambling to gain and maintain their power, Banner is actively avoiding and, as we learn later, attempting to cure himself of his power. This creates some structural subversion. Whereas physically overpowering enemies would be triumphant moments for most Marvel characters—think of Iron Man escaping the cave in Afghanistan, or Thor destroying the Destroyer—it’s a failure (at least at this point) for Bruce. This reverses the emotional movement in The Incredible Hulk, a distortion that is compounded by our desire to see Banner become Hulk and wreak havoc. (One can hardly avoid thinking of that adage: “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film.” This quotation is typically attributed to François Truffaut and is taken to mean that physical conflict is so thrilling in cinema that it inherently glorifies itself. It's the reason why The Hunger Games is so morally and thematically challenging in its screen adaptations, and the same principle applies to a lesser degree when it comes to Bruce Banner.) I’ll explore this emotional reversal in a bit more detail when I discuss the act breaks in Incredible Hulk.
The training sequence is followed by establishing shots of the factory where Bruce is working. One of his female coworkers, who he will identify later as Martina, looks at Banner with obvious affection. He ignores her; thanks to the efficient character work accomplished by the first few minutes of the film and information that is easy enough to intuit (but will be revealed explicitly during the second act), we can conclude that this is because a) he is still in love with Betty, and b) he knows that sexual contact will elevate his heartrate. A supervisor calls Bruce over so he can examine a device which is sparking and clearly broken—from this, we can surmise that Banner has demonstrated his scientific competence by fixing things at the factory.
Bruce cuts his finger while working on the device, and a drop of his blood ominously plunges in slow motion towards the sodas being bottled and packaged below. This is a lovely shot (which apparently took ages to create) that emphasizes the magnitude of the power in Banner’s blood by emphasizing its size on the screen and the amount of time it spends there. (It also would have been interesting, and perhaps equally effective, if the filmmakers had elected to downplay this moment. We would then be in the POV of the other factory workers rather than Bruce, and it would be his agitation that clues us in to the severity of the accident.)
He wipes up what he thinks is the blood, but the camera pans over to reveal that it was not. The irradiated substance gets into one of the soda bottles, and the label tells us that it is going to America. This is our inciting incident, the moment in which the protagonist in inescapably locked into the conflict—because once his blood gets out, we know that Ross (the secondary antagonist) is going to find him, that Hulk (the primary antagonist) will be exposed, and that the film will not be finished until the conflict between the protagonist and the primary antagonist is resolved in some way.
As he is leaving the factory, Banner sees his male coworkers harassing Martina. They lock eyes, but Bruce keeps his head down and keeps walking; he knows that getting involved will make him angry. (Exploring this theme, the idea that he is not able to help people for fear of unleashing Hulk, is a major missed opportunity for the movie.) But he comes back and asks Martina if she wants to have lunch with him, demonstrating his ability to get around problems by using nonviolent solutions (it would have been interesting and subversive to see more of this—how many superhero movies would dare revolve around a protagonist who is actively using their intellect to skirt around using their powers?).
When Banner is confronted by the male coworkers, we get the payoff to the joke set up a couple scenes ago: “Don’t make me hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m…hungry.” This is such a fun line not only because of the obvious reference, but because it stays entirely true to the character and the situation established by the movie we are in. Marvel frequently struggles when it comes to organically integrating references into their films (how about that Captain America shield in Iron Man 2?), so this is a genuinely funny breath of fresh air. The scene concludes with a lingering shot on the coworker who confronted Bruce, indicating that the conflict between them has yet to be resolved.
The sequence which follows (whenever Banner is out on the streets, in the open) features many wide shots in which the camera drifts slightly, almost voyeuristically. We get the sense that Bruce is being watched; given that we know his blood has gotten out and is likely about to be discovered, this contributes to a sense of unease and constant paranoia as we begin to dread an attack at any time. Banner, of course, doesn’t know what we do, and the dramatic irony eliminates any remnant of friction that might have been slowing the pace of the film.
A man in the street hands Bruce a packaged flower. (I appreciate the lack of an explanation for who this person is and why he’s aiding Banner in the acquisition of a planet that appears to affect his altered blood. The filmmakers are trusting the audience to understand that such information is not relevant to the story at hand.) He sets up his makeshift lab, complete with a photo of Betty: everything he does, he does to get back to her, and his condition is the obstacle standing in his way. Ross is not his primary antagonist—it’s Hulk. (I’ll explore these protagonist/antagonist dynamics more thoroughly when they shift at the midpoint of the movie.) Bruce converses with Mr. Blue, an unknown figure who is attempting to help him cure his condition. The green disappears from the cells under the microscope, and we zoom in on Banner’s face—is this working?—until the green returns and the cells physically smash the glass (a hilarious detail which never ceases to amuse me). He has failed. When he tells Mr. Blue of his failure, Mr. Blue says it’s time to meet. The camera pulls back from the photograph of Betty to communicate Bruce’s feeling that he is farther than ever from returning to her.
A quick sequence with Ross at the Pentagon (and a cameo from Stan Lee) moves us through a couple of necessary story beats: Banner’s irradiated blood has been noticed and traced back to the factory, and Ross is now in pursuit. Emil Blonsky is his “ace” soldier, a man who we know almost nothing about at this time—but he is shot almost exclusively with low angles during his introduction, indicating that he is a powerful and thus dangerous person. We will want to keep an eye on him. Blonsky is the only member of the team who appears to be curious about their target (his constant inquisitiveness is an atypical trait for a villain, and I find that it enriches his relatively-shallow character). Ross shuts him down; Bruce’s true nature is not the kind of information he shares with anyone and everyone.
Mr. Blue tells Banner that he can cure him, but Bruce will have to retrieve Betty’s data. Our stakes and conflict are again clear: Banner can only return to Betty after he has eliminated Hulk, thus ensuring her safety, but he can only eliminate Hulk by first returning to Betty. It’s a no-win scenario for Bruce, and that makes for good drama. The remainder of Incredible Hulk’s first act is comprised of Banner’s transformation into Hulk and escape from the soldiers; I’m generally going to be glossing over the action sequences in this movie, because they are frankly not that interesting on a cinematic, thematic, or structural level.
There are a few moments of note during this sequence, however. First: Blonsky shooting Bruce’s dog. This is an extremely cheap (heck, it’s the cheapest) method for making the viewer dislike Blonsky. It works, but it’s insufferably lazy. (I have a similar grudge against John Wick for pulling the same trick, but at least in this case the entire movie doesn’t pivot on animal cruelty.) Second: Blonsky frequently does things differently from the other soldiers during the chase. He stops to aim while they keep running, and he pursues Banner using different routes. This entire sequence, really, functions as character-building for Blonsky. He is more cautious, more perceptive than his nameless cannon-fodder counterparts, and we need to see that in order to establish him as a credible (eh?) opponent for Hulk. Third: Bruce encounters Ross during the chase. This is important in that it clarifies for Banner who exactly he is up against. It’s not Blonsky; Blonsky’s antagonist is Hulk, Ross’ antagonist is Bruce. Fourth: Banner runs into his male coworkers once again, and I just want to point out how the characters are kept distinct by the bold costume design—bright red, blue, and yellow shirts. Fifth: We cut quickly between Bruce, Blonsky, Ross, and the coworkers in the moments leading up to Banner’s transformation, which increases the urgency and the tension. It is finally revealed that 200 BPM is the number that triggers the transformation. When Hulk throws the coworker through the glass, Leterrier pans the camera to emphasize the distance he has covered and thus the strength of Hulk.
The battle against Hulk is firmly in Blonsky’s POV. This excuses the quick cuts that make it so difficult to see Hulk in the shadows; Blonsky doesn’t know and can’t quite make out what is going on, and so neither can we. (The cinematic reason for this, of course, is that it permits some leeway in the visual effects. But within the context of the film, it works to increase Hulk’s mysteriousness.) Hulk utters one line during the battle—“Leave me alone”—and escapes through the factory wall. Blonsky’s voice is tinged with admiration when he describes it to Ross in the following scene: “It was the most powerful thing I’ve ever seen.” You can hear the desire to possess that power himself in his tone, and his motivation going forward becomes clear.
Ross reveals to Blonsky that Banner and Hulk are one and the same. He refers to Hulk as “it,” emphasizing the inhumanity of the word, poisoning Blonsky against Bruce. This scene between Blonsky and Ross concludes the first act of the film, which ends in failure for Banner: all he wanted was to avoid becoming Hulk, and yet he became Hulk, and the craving of the audience for superpowered destruction was temporarily satisfied. The second act of the film begins with Bruce waking up in a forest in Guatemala approximately twenty-eight minutes into the movie, just a shade over twenty-five percent of the running time (where, mathematically, the first act should conclude).
DAYS WITHOUT INCIDENT: 1
During Banner’s journey back to America, we begin to see indications that he retains flashes of memory from his time as Hulk: bursts of gunfire, triggered by headlights sweeping over him as he sleeps on the street. Dwelling a bit more on Bruce’s PTSD throughout the film would have enriched his character in some interesting ways, but even alluding to the trauma is a strong move that adds depth to the movie.
When Banner finally arrives at Culver University, he discovers that Betty is seeing someone and that the data he needs is now missing. Betty and her boyfriend show up at Stanley’s, where Bruce has taken up temporary residence, and something interesting happens here: we briefly switch to Betty’s POV when she catches a glimpse of Banner. Structurally-speaking, this isn’t necessary (in fact, it irks me a bit; switching POVs is a big deal, and it’s treated far too casually here), but it does establish a goal and a motivation for the only major female character in the film. It’s not necessary, but it is nice to see Betty treated as a character and not a plot device for a few seconds.
A downpour brings the mood into focus as Betty catches up with Bruce: it’s a deeply painful moment, a moment of old wounds reopening, but it’s also a moment of healing and rebirth. A character beat flashes by—in the second before Betty steps out of the car to confront Banner, the camera is positioned behind her; the use of rack focus shifts our attention from Bruce to Betty, and we see her touch her hair as if to make herself look presentable (a meaningless action, given that she is about to enter the downpour, which makes it even more poignant).
Betty reveals that she has the data Banner needs, and Bruce reveals that Ross intends on turning Hulk into a weapon. This comment transitions us into a brief scene in which Ross retrieves the serum that he will use on Blonsky; even without dialogue, we know exactly what it is because the timing of the cut leads us to associate the moment with Banner’s comment. A lovely shot follows when we cut back to Bruce: the camera pans to follow him as he steps out of his room and into the hallway, at which time Betty enters the frame. Their entire conversation here keeps them in frame together and contains no cuts, which emphasizes their emotional connection and allows the awkward pauses to simmer. Betty finally leaves the frame and the camera again pans to follow Banner as he steps back into his room.
A sequence of shots from above cuts back and forth between Bruce and Betty, zooming in on their faces as they attempt unsuccessfully to fall asleep. Their connection in the previous scene in juxtaposed here with their disconnect and loneliness; they are both clearly in emotional turmoil, but Betty displays it more readily. Banner eventually closes his eyes, resolving himself to sleep. Blonsky, meanwhile, is injected with Ross’ serum while Ross himself is clearly beginning to regret the decision. This is our first hint that at least one key protagonist/antagonist relationship will shift during the second half of the film.
The next day, Ross and his men storm the campus and corner Bruce, who again becomes Hulk. Betty attempts to stop Ross, and we hear her say “Dad!” for the first time—this is a moment which really hits hard because she has not yet explicitly acknowledged the nature of her relationship with Ross, thus emphasizing how long it has been since she confronted her father. “Now she’ll see,” Ross says of Betty when Hulk makes his appearance; he believes that Betty would no longer have an interest in her former lover if she knew exactly what it is he can become (also note that Ross refers to Betty as “she” even though she is standing right next to him, thus communicating how dismissive he is even of her basic humanity). Blonsky faces off against the monster and holds his own. Ross attempts to incapacitate Hulk with the sonic emitters he acquired from Stark, but Betty’s cries motivate Hulk and give him the strength he needs to break free. Blonsky taunts Hulk and pays for it; when Ross orders his gunship to attack, Hulk saves Betty and takes her away.
This sequence is followed by a conversation between Ross and Betty’s boyfriend, in which it is revealed that the latter told the former where Banner was located. Ross tells Betty’s boyfriend that he did the right thing, but the boyfriend calls out Ross on his lie: he saw Ross put Betty in harm’s way, and it was Hulk who rescued her. This is a beautiful beat of storytelling. A common trope in romance plotlines is the protagonist returning from a long absence to discover that their romantic interest is now with another partner.
This other partner, usually a man, almost always turns out to be a douchebag—thus, as the audience, we don’t have to feel bad when he is eventually kicked to the curb so the romantic interest can get back together with the protagonist. The Incredible Hulk could have easily fallen back on this trope, but it doesn’t. Instead, Betty’s partner turns out to be a stand-up guy who tries to do the right thing and realizes his mistake upon seeing the interaction between Betty and Hulk. There’s no payoff to this. No real reason to develop his character in this way. But it’s an honest and refreshing subversion that deepens this seemingly-shallow piece of cinema in unexpected ways. Kudos!
Let’s pause here and clearly delineate our lines of conflict, because it is at this point that The Incredible Hulk appears to become a structural mess if we fail to do so. Consider the bones of storytelling: the protagonist wants something, and the antagonist wants something mutually exclusive (or, more broadly, functions as an obstacle between the protagonist and whatever it is they want). Now, consider our five key players in first half of the film only:
1. Bruce is our protagonist. He wants to return to Betty, but only if he is not a danger to her; if there is even the slightest potential that he could become Hulk, he cannot safely return. Bruce’s primary antagonist, then, is Hulk, because Hulk is the obstacle that is preventing him from safely returning to Betty. Bruce’s secondary antagonist is Ross, because Ross wants to capture Bruce in order to harness the power of Hulk. Ross is thus an obstacle preventing Bruce from safely returning to Betty, but his elimination would not resolve the core conflict. The core conflict can only be resolved by eliminating Hulk.
2. Hulk wants to destroy his enemies and protect those he cares about. Hulk’s antagonists, then, are primarily Blonsky (who faces him in the field and is willing to kill him) and secondarily Ross (who faces him by proxy and wishes only to capture him).
3. Ross wants to capture Hulk. His antagonists, then, are Hulk, Bruce, and Betty.
4. Betty wants to help Bruce cure his condition. Her antagonist, then, is Ross.
5. Blonsky wants power; specifically, he wants more power than Hulk. His antagonist, then, is only Hulk himself.
Moving into the second half of the film, however, our antagonist delineations have shifted slightly. Hulk is still Bruce’s primary antagonist; Ross, meanwhile, has shifted his attention to Blonsky and hardly qualifies as even a secondary antagonist for Banner. Hulk’s antagonists remain the same, albeit with more of an emphasis on Blonsky as he becomes the Abomination and is thus more of an immediate threat. Ross’ primary goal in the second half of the film is not to capture Hulk, but rather to kill Blonsky/the Abomination. Blonsky is thus Ross’ primary antagonist. Betty’s goal in the second half of the film is to repair her relationship with Bruce, thus making Ross and Bruce himself (who still feels that it is unsafe) her antagonists. Blonsky still wants power, but now Ross has turned against him: his antagonists are Hulk and Ross.
I spent years believing that the second act of The Incredible Hulk ended after the cave sequence between Hulk and Betty; Banner’s transformations seem to be obvious indicators that a major storytelling arc has concluded. Looking at the timestamps, though, this doesn’t make much sense: we’re barely over an hour into the movie at this point, which means the second act shouldn’t be ending for another twenty minutes or so. I considered the possibility that something strange was happening structurally, that the second act had been condensed and the third was simply bloated. I considered the possibility that this was a four-act film, with each act running about twenty-five to thirty minutes.
I was wrong on all counts. The timestamps don’t lie—eighty-three minutes in, the second act will end. Here, at sixty-two minutes, we are at the midpoint of the movie (duh). The problem is that I wasn’t paying attention to the core conflict, which doesn’t change here: it changes when Bruce fails to cure his condition in Brazil and is forced to return to America, and it will change again in about twenty minutes when Dr. Sterns appears to successfully subdue Banner’s transformation, thus accomplishing Bruce’s goal from the film’s outset. The pivot between the second and third act is one of the most interesting moments in The Incredible Hulk, so I will discuss that in a bit more detail when we get there.
Banner and Betty travel to New York to meet Mr. Blue, and Ross is hot on their trail. Tim Blake Nelson effortlessly brings Samuel Sterns to life (his blue shirt is a nice nod to his codename, if a bit on the nose), but he is supported by strong dialogue that characterizes him in an instant: “Nothing could have surprised me more,” he says of Bruce, to Bruce, “than this unassuming man shaking my hand.” Note how Sterns speaks of Banner as if he isn’t even there (in much the same manner that Ross spoke of Betty just prior to the showdown sequence on the Culver campus); this is an efficient way of telling the audience that Sterns sees Bruce as more of a scientific subject than an actual person, which in turn tells us that we should be wary of him because he may be willing to sacrifice Banner’s well-being for the sake of his research.
During the induction sequence, Leterrier frequently begins shots in close-up so we can observe an element of Bruce’s change in detail before pulling back to indicate that the change is spreading out to his entire body. The camera follows Sterns almost frantically as he runs back and forth in an attempt to activate and control all his machines and computers; this movement communicates how desperately we, by proxy, are relying on him to keep the situation in check. Betty subdues Hulk and Sterns manages to reverse the transformation. Ross and Blonsky close in on Banner, and the latter is now completely out of the former’s control. Bruce’s capture marks the end of the second act.
So here we are. Banner has achieved the goal he has been striving for across the entire film: Hulk is, at least temporarily, eliminated. Bruce has defeated his primary antagonist. This is strange, isn’t it? Shouldn’t the defeat of the primary antagonist conclude the overarching conflict for the movie as a whole? Normally, yes. But our conflict has just been redefined—Sterns is playing with metaphorical fire by testing Banner’s blood on other living things, and Blonsky seems to be becoming more powerful by the minute. Recall that Hulk was Blonsky’s primary antagonist; now, with Hulk gone, there is nothing to stop Blonsky from unleashing death and destruction upon the world. Success for Bruce, then, has suddenly been turned into failure. Only by bringing Hulk back—the exact thing we have been attempting to avoid for the past eighty minutes—can Blonsky be defeated and the primary conflict resolved.
Blonsky demands that Sterns give him Banner’s power, and the two share a moment of connection in their admiration of Hulk’s strength. “I just need informed consent,” Sterns tells Blonsky. The specificity of that phrasing is a lovely little beat; “informed consent,” of course, is the exactly the type of language that a doctor would use (given the nature of their work), and the juxtaposition between the formality of the statement and the absurdity of the situation—Blonsky holding Sterns above his head—creates just a touch of humor. “And you’ve given it,” Sterns concludes. He transforms Blonsky into the Abomination, who rises up to fill almost the entire frame. Sterns is knocked aside: Bruce’s blood drips onto his head, which bubbles ominously, and he smiles.
Hulk defeats the Abomination and flees. We return to Banner one last time in British Columbia, where he appears to have gained control of Hulk. This feels like a natural conclusion for his character; Bruce obviously cannot cure himself for extratextual reasons—Hulk is part of the Avengers—but it makes sense for him to have arced from wanting to eliminate Hulk to wanting to control him. The events of the film have caused Banner to realize that Hulk can be an invaluable force for good, and so the movie comes to an organic end. Except, well…
We conclude with a final cliffhanger in which Tony Stark approaches Ross regarding the assembly (eh?) of a “team” (the Avengers, obviously). It’s a fun teaser, but it’s in the wrong place; it should have been included either as the penultimate scene or as a post-credits bonus (I’m surprised that it’s not, actually, given that it has the tone of one and that there is no actual post-credits tease). It reeks too much of desperate marketing as it stands, and it betrays Bruce by taking the ending of his film away from him. That’s a sour note upon which to conclude what is otherwise one of the better entries in the MCU. It’s about to get even worse, though, because the dark days of Iron Man 2 are ahead….